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Official Review by Sean Rowland, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
Tucked away in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania is a former mining town named after the new territory of California during the Gold Rush. While that period of American history featured a lot of dreamers and few successors, the irony is that in this small town by the same name, big dreams were achieved, but at a hefty price. Over the last 30 years, California University of Pennsylvania has gone through a lot of expansion and growth. The crown jewel for the university is a Convocation Center and President Angelo Armenti went big with a fancy arena, despite the Division II status of the school. Before completion, questions and heated debate ensued as many people in the school, town and county were incredulous at why this new facility needed to cost so much money ($59 million) and built so large (5,000 seats) for a town and school of its small size.
Despite a consultant hired by the school recommending a cheaper and smaller facility, the now fired Armenti pressed on and the building opened in December 2011. The first “big” event at the center was a Kenny Rogers concert that failed to fill half of the seats. The following few years have seen the school go into debt as a result of the arena and negative issues have plagued Cal U with job cuts and diminishing enrollment. While it certainly is a beautiful building, the overlying theme here is how necessary was it?
On the sports side, the Cal U Vulcans basketball team utilizes the Convocation Center and this school plays in the PSAC, of which they have been a member for decades. They have won eight conference titles (the last coming in 2008) and the Vulcans even reached the Final Four twice in the 1990s. Games are mostly in front of empty red seats, but despite the controversy, the arena is one of the best facilities in Division II.
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There is room for several concession stands, but only one is needed for basketball games. Even with a low number of people attending, the lines can be a bit longer than expected during halftime. It's good to see a cheeseburger & fries combo ($7.40) available, and fans can also have chicken tenders ($5.09). Otherwise, it's the usual assortment of concession snacks. Any bottled soda ($2.04) is from Pepsi. The odd pricing is a result of tax, which likely slows the service process even more as cashiers have to deal with pennies, nickels and dimes.
Ignoring the ramifications of building the arena, it is indeed a very nice place. The outside look is a pleasant, modern mix of brick and the advertising video screen includes a bright display of flames (representing Vulcans). Inside, the red seating bowl is all one section and shaped like a U as the open end is blocked off with a curtain. As expected, all sight lines are good and fans pretty much have their choice of seat. An appropriately-sized video board hangs above center court and it completes an arena that you could easily mistaken for a mid-major D-I school.
With so few fans in attendance, it is hard to generate much of an atmosphere. Even in spite of a small pep band who play sparingly, most of the noise comes from the players on the floor. If you attend a women's game you may be surprised to learn that not only is the crowd larger, but they generate enough noise to be heard back in the main foyer.
The school's campus makes up about half of the town of California, which is tucked into a bend in the Monongahela River. Only about 6,000 people live in the town and if the students are not on campus, it is quiet and empty.
There are only a couple local places to check out: Spuds is geared towards drunken food for college kids with many variations of French fries being their specialty. Their other choices certainly bring one back to those days of fatty, greasy delight. For a more complete bar/restaurant experience, it's better to head about five minutes west to the town of Coal Center, where Lagerheads has a decent menu and variety of beers.
With a couple hundred in attendance just casually watching the game, it's hard to justify the word "fans," however the crowd for the women's games displays more appreciation and passion. While most of those fans appear to be friends and family, it makes for a better event. The students were on break for the game I attended most recently, but there is not too much more of an uptick in attendance when they are on-campus.
California is about an hour south of Pittsburgh and though direct access from the city involves using the busy and tight Route 51, there are a pair of interstates (I-70 and I-79) within the region that make the trip south easier. The school and borough is right off of Exit 32 from Route 43 (a four-lane tollway) and the Convocation Center is on the eastern side of campus. Parking can be found along the river, behind the building and though signs say "Permit Only," it is ok to use this lot for basketball games.
Space inside the center is plentiful, starting with the large atrium in the beginning that resembles a student union rather than a basketball arena. Fans climb stairs to reach the roomy upper level area which looks over the court and allows access to the top of the seating bowl.
Parking is free and basketball games are just $5. Though the atmosphere and national coverage is a significant drop-off from Division I to Division II, the games are just as competitive and it means just as much to the players on the floor.
Three display cases inside the opening atrium help to tell the story of the teams playing inside and the opening days of the Convocation Center. I couldn't help but look at those close-up pictures of Kenny Rogers during the "Grand Opening" and think about what a more wide scale photo of a half-empty arena would look like.
Another display is an excellent statue of the California women's basketball team celebrating their 2004 National Championship. This is located outside their old gym, Hamer Hall and while most fans pass it on the way to the Convocation Center, they should move this statue to where the team now actually plays.
There is no denying that the Cal U Convocation Center is a beautiful modern arena with all of the fan comforts in place, and a nice design to boot. It is a treat to watch basketball in, but when sitting in a sea of empty seats, the question of why is apparent. Only graduation has filled the building and other events haven't come close. The ridiculous amount of money spent has put the school in debt and despite many within the town and school against the building, their arguments of the resulting consequences are coming to fruition.
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